There has been a surprising
amount of chatter about what President-elect Obama should, or more
often should not, say and do when it comes to the "hot button" issue of
abortion; namely nothing. That’s a shame because I believe
President-elect Obama can teach us all a thing or two about respecting
the choices that other people make in their lives and carrying that
respect through into our public policies.
I don’t know what decisions the incoming administration will make
when it comes to health care policies, but the principles that will
inform those choices are clear. The President-elect’s choices will
demonstrate a grasp of the facts as we know them and not just as we
wish them to be. They will be grounded in his faith in people’s ability
to make change in their lives. And they will be infused with a vision
for change that asks people to pitch in and work harder and look after
not only ourselves but each other.
What could this mean for policies related to abortion, pregnancy,
parenting and prevention? At the least, we can expect to see a greater
national and international commitment to information and services that
help individuals prevent unwanted pregnancy or disease. An emphasis on
education that helps young people develop respect for themselves and
cultivate healthy relationships with others. We can expect to see
nomination of justices who respect individual autonomy and privacy. We
can expect proposals for health care reform to include the full range
of reproductive health care services a woman might need throughout her
life. We may even see policies that expand opportunities and resources
for women who want to carry a pregnancy to term but need to heal from
the injuries of violence, trauma or addiction.
And we can expect something more. Throughout his campaign, Senator
(now President-elect) Obama demonstrated his ability to use the bully
pulpit to reshape the discourse of political "wedge" issues. This
election season showed the public is ready for a conversation that
respects their intelligence, provides vision, and helps us all move
past the old divisive and frankly tired arguments. Among voters and
advocates alike, there is a weariness of the same old contentions that
get us nowhere, make enemies out of those who may disagree, and don’t
represent the real individuals who are most affected by our policies.
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For a start, what if we — as policymakers, advocates, and the
electorate — took seriously President-elect Obama’s challenge to purge
the condescension and judgment from our political and public discourse?
What if we stopped the name calling, stopped belittling deeply held
beliefs about life, marriage, commitment and what it means to be human;
stopped shutting our eyes to the fact that sometimes life doesn’t turn
out like we planned and we struggle to live up to our own ideals?
When it comes to the complex issues of abortion, sexuality,
pregnancy, and parenting, we could have a debate that acknowledges that
each one of us wrestles with making sense of these intricate subjects.
We could have a debate that recognizes it is not just "those women" who
have abortions, but that any woman who is pregnant may be faced with
circumstances that lead her to conclude she cannot have another child
and that she is unprepared to place a child for adoption. We could have
a debate that moves beyond the question of whether abortion should be
legal and instead tackles the persistent and troubling disparities in
birth outcomes for African-American and Caucasian women.
We can only do this if we uphold what one of my colleague calls the
"sacred authority" of an individual to make his or her own decisions at
the center of our policymaking. But, as President-elect Obama reminds
us, we cannot afford to rely only on a libertarian or individualist
world view. To realize and truly respect decision making, we have to
work together to create more opportunities and options for people to
aspire to change their circumstances and live with health and dignity.
Our dire economic reality may allow only limited progress on some of
our most pressing domestic policies. But this is a time when changing
our attitudes and our discourse will lay the groundwork for a
generation of policy change. We can’t afford to judge each other, and
if we truly want to "look out not only for ourselves but for each
other," let’s foster respect and support for a woman’s decision making,
and further our understanding of the role each of us and our
institutions can play to help individuals live up to their own beliefs
and ideals. I know President Obama isn’t looking forward to starting
in-depth public conversations on contentious cultural issues, but when
the subject comes up, we have a leader who can help us move forward.